Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from the new Hoover Press book Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?
The famous philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” In order to assess the health, much less predict the future, of rugged individualism in America, it should help to recount briefly what it is and is not. President Obama, no great fan of rugged individualism, has acknowledged that it is nevertheless “in America’s DNA” and that it “defines America.” Reaching back to the founding, rugged individualism has defined American character and uniqueness. It has been described as the “master assumption” of American political and economic thought. The combination of individual liberty in America’s founding and the frontier spirit provided the rich soil in which it has grown and developed.
Equally, it seems important to note what American rugged individualism is not. It is not, as Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledged, the selfish, isolating self-absorption of the French individualisme, since Americans temper their individualism with other qualities such as pragmatism and a disposition toward forming voluntary associations. It is not a purely economic idea, as the Progressives and New Dealers suggested, since it is grounded in a political philosophy of individual rights. As Herbert Hoover, who coined the phrase “rugged individualism,” pointed out, it is not a laissez-faire, devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy for the wealthy since, in America, it is accompanied by equality of opportunity. It is not, as it is sometimes perceived to be, some form of selfishness or greed that demands it be regulated, presumably by government.
In order to evaluate the future of rugged individualism, it is also useful to review the environments in which it has fared well and those that have hampered and undermined it. In general, rugged individualism is closely tied to frontiers, not just frontiers of the Old West but economic, social, and political frontiers. Where there are new frontiers to conquer, Americans are more likely to launch out in a spirit of rugged individualism. Further, those political climates that tend to favor individual liberty have been most hospitable to rugged individualism. To put it another way, when the American tension that Tocqueville observed between equality and liberty tends toward liberty, rugged individualism has prospered. When the political climate has shifted more toward equality, it has not. Indeed, one could well argue that, since the rise of Progressivism and the New Deal in the early twentieth century, rugged individualism has been under rather steady attack and has often fought even to maintain a seat at the public policy table.
In order to undertake a balanced assessment of the future prospects for American rugged individualism, we should consider both reasons to be pessimistic as well as reasons to be optimistic about it. Such an evaluation might also indicate where supporters of rugged individualism might focus greater encouragement and resources, and where it seems important to stand and fight.
Reasons to Be Pessimistic
The political climate in the United States provides plenty of reason to be pessimistic about the future of rugged individualism. In the 2016 presidential campaign, on the one hand it may have seemed encouraging that rugged individuals such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—who seem not to care much about their party, the establishment, or the present political system—enjoyed surprising success. On the other hand, one could equally be discouraged that voters were apparently less interested in being rugged individuals themselves as they were in supporting rugged, or even somewhat ragged, individuals for the presidency. In other words, Americans seem content to let the government do more and more for them, yet they are intrigued by contrarian individuals such as Sanders and Trump as their leaders.
Despite their unusual personas, neither Sanders nor Trump demonstrated much commitment to individual rights or moving America toward greater rugged individualism. Sanders openly described himself as a democratic socialist interested in an expanded welfare state. His campaign planks included greater government regulation and single-payer health insurance, with free college and pre-K education for everyone. Sanders has been deeply concerned about income inequality, prepared to enact significant tax increases in order to fund his expensive programs. His agenda was clearly more soft collectivism and less rugged individualism.
Donald Trump’s political philosophy has been more difficult to ascertain. Perhaps it is best described as nationalism or nativism: make America great again, build physical walls along the borders and tariff walls around the economy. But it is more difficult to see how his philosophy would play out within the borders of the United States as it pertains to collectivism vs. individualism and regulation vs. individual freedom. Looking for clues, he is certainly in favor of gun rights under the Second Amendment. But his statements about limiting Muslims and their rights raised questions about his understanding of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. His idea of free speech and a free press under the First Amendment has been that he gets to say what he wants, but he would like to open up the libel laws against the media. His broad understanding of presidential power was not especially hopeful for states’ rights under the Tenth Amendment. You did not hear him talk much about liberty or freedom. In short, it would seem that Trump’s nationalism and promised use of executive power generally is unlikely to rally a spirit or a political and legal climate that favors rugged individualism.
Hillary Clinton represented the mainstream Democratic position which, though less extreme than Sanders's, travels down that same Progressive road. She wanted the government to achieve more collectivist goals, such as wider access to pre-K through college education, but was less certain that it could be entirely free. She sought wider access to health care, but did not openly advocate single-payer health care as Sanders did. Clinton originally favored raising the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour, while Sanders supported $15 per hour (and Clinton eventually agreed). You get the point. Whereas Sanders is a full-throated Progressive, or self-described democratic socialist, Clinton represented Progressivism-lite: a third-less calories than your full-on Progressive. Still, Clinton is all about the federal government doing and guaranteeing more, with individualism more of a problem than part of any solution. The rise of the administrative state, which removes the crucial element of individual consent, should be a continuing cause for concern regarding the future of rugged individualism.
With Trump as the Republican nominee, the traditional conservative wing of the party wasn’t even represented in presidential politics this year, which is itself a disappointment to proponents of rugged individualism. Nevertheless, it is difficult in recent years to find consistent support for rugged individualism even among conservatives. The largest federal encroachment on K-12 education, the No Child Left Behind law, was enacted with bipartisan support and signed by self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative” President George W. Bush. Likewise, Bush supported a major and expensive expansion of prescription benefits for the aged. Although a few conservatives in Congress have fought the good fight, the federal budget, executive power, and federal regulation all seem to grow under both Republicans and Democrats. All that to say: if you are looking for a stirring renaissance of rugged individualism, you probably would not look in Washington, D.C., or among the leading national politicians or political parties.
Another reason to be pessimistic about rugged individualism is that its foundation, individual liberty, has increasingly become an abstraction in our modern society. Young people, in particular, have grown up in an era of big government and don’t entirely understand or appreciate the case for less government involvement in individuals’ lives. When those in our society have needs, people have trouble understanding conservatives’ preference to have churches and nonprofits take the lead, rather than government. Occasionally there are “liberty moments,” when people scratch their heads and wonder why government is invading their personal lives. The attempt to ban large sodas in New York was one such example, although the New York Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that such a law exceeded the city’s regulatory authority. Many young people who expected to keep their own private health insurance policies faced an unpleasant surprise when those policies were declared illegal because they did not meet Obamacare requirements. Young men were left to wonder why they had to buy more expensive policies that included pregnancy coverage, for example, which they did not need. Still, overall, such moments are rare and do not seem to meld into much of a liberty movement, especially among the young.
Developmentally, several trends would lead to pessimism about the future of rugged individualism. Helicopter parents, who closely track their children’s’ lives at all ages, and who intervene with their teachers, bosses, and other authorities, create a climate where rugged individualism becomes a difficult path to pursue. A college experience that now polices “trigger words” and “microaggressions,” while adopting policies to keep students from experiencing discomfort, leads more toward coddling than rugged individualism. Then the rising number of college graduates who live with their parents, are older when they find full-time employment, and who marry later all contribute to a generation that will be delayed or prevented from reaching the sort of individualism experienced by their post-World War II parents and grandparents.
Finally, narratives are gaining a hold on the young that will lead America further away from rugged individualism. Robert Putnam argues in his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, that income inequality is the big problem in our democracy today, one that precludes “our kids” from realizing the American dream of upward mobility. One might praise efforts to address income inequality as enlightened commitments to help those lower on the economic ladder; yet each step in that direction mandated by government does necessarily reduce individualism. It places government squarely in the business of income redistribution, something previously the province of individuals. In fact, some polling has suggested that American young people are now more open to socialism than before. A YouGov survey in January 2016 showed that among those under thirty, socialism rated ahead of capitalism, 43 percent to 23 percent. A Reason-Rupe survey in 2014 found 58 percent in favor of socialism for those ages 18−24. All this is tempered, however, by evidence that young people do not even know what socialism means.
Reasons to Be Optimistic
On the other hand, people have been proclaiming the demise of rugged individualism for more than one hundred years, yet somehow it lives on. Planted deeply in the soil of the American founding and character, it may be diminished but is not likely to be destroyed. The more interesting question is whether it might enjoy some kind of renaissance in the twenty-first century. Are there reasons to be optimistic about the future of rugged individualism, or will the future simply see further decline?
If, as we have argued, American individualism is especially nourished in a frontier environment, might today’s young people live on some new frontiers where individualism could be nourished? The answer would appear to be “yes.” In the information age, young people will live on new social and business frontiers that could very well produce a revival of individualism.
The social media world in which Americans, especially younger Americans, now live is truly a new frontier. Now, rather than leaving the house to engage the collective culture, we are able to be alone and yet through technology also be connected to others. We may not be bowling alone, as Robert Putnam bemoaned, but people are communicating alone. In fact, a new term describes this frontier: networked individualism. Books such as Networked: The New Social Operating System and websites such as the Pew Internet Project describe in detail how people are able to operate with greater individualism, yet not in isolation. New and larger social networks are developed, new work styles are possible, new hobbies and interests are pursued— all from the stance of an individual and a piece of technology. As Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman concluded in Networked: “The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals … because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.”
It is difficult to evaluate at this early stage the impact of networked individualism on our society and politics, and whether it represents a new boost of energy for American rugged individualism. Whether social media has a positive or negative effect on social relationships is debated, with some agreement that it may extend the range of social contacts and keep some aging relationships alive, while perhaps reducing the depth of relationships. In any event, there is no question that the rise of technology has led to increases in people’s alone-time and use of social media, which certainly creates the possibility for a new generation much more inclined toward individualism, or at least networked individualism. As the authors of Networked concluded: “The internet allowed users to be both more networked and be more assertive as individuals.”
Similarly, on the business front, young people seem to be gravitating away from careers in large corporations and toward startups, portfolio jobs, and the “gig economy.” Some of this has been driven by the economic downturn starting in 2008, but it is a matter of preference as well. A survey of the college graduating class of 2015 by the consulting firm Accenture revealed that only 15 percent preferred to work for a large corporation. Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of University College London confirms this, saying, “In the 15 years I’ve been teaching MBA students, their career plans have changed dramatically. Until the early 2000s they aspired to work in traditional corporate jobs. . . . In the past few years, however, a new favorite career choice has emerged—working for themselves or launching their own business.” As millennials make up a growing percentage of the workforce, this will be a powerful trend in the coming decades. Valuing personal freedom over money and prestige, young people’s business lives may increasingly represent a kind of rugged individualism along with their social lives. Starting your own business, or stitching together a series of portfolio or gig jobs, will certainly put more "rugged" back into the business lives of young people.
Individualism in business leads to greater creativity and innovation, to be sure. A 2005 study by two Cornell University professors considered collectivism and individualism in group settings, for example, finding that individualistic groups were more creative and generated more innovative ideas. It makes sense, then, to think of companies like Uber or Lyft, which have transformed entire fields of business and customer service, as the new John Wayne’s of the rugged individualism economy.
It is unclear how these changes in business and social life might translate into the larger society and politics, or how they might affect the philosophy of rugged individualism. On one hand, young people spending more time in their business and social lives in an individual role would point toward more individualism, broadly speaking. On the other hand, it is not clear that younger voters see the connection between their own increasingly individual lifestyles and supporting rugged individualism, as opposed to collectivism, in the political realm. In general, the younger generation has been less interested in politics and more engaged in volunteer or community activities. But when they do vote, or jump onto the political bandwagon, they readily support more collectivist and liberal causes, such as Bernie Sanders’s free tuition or nationalized health care. So while changes toward individualism in their work and social lives seem to offer the possibility of greater interest in rugged individualism, so far the connection between individualism in one’s personal life and a political philosophy is not apparent. Still, it seems worthwhile for proponents of rugged individualism to educate young people along these lines.
There is also hope for rugged individualism in the lives and businesses of immigrants who still flock to the United States. Immigrants continue to come to America, seeking a better life and more opportunity for themselves and their children. When you take a taxi ride in a major US city, your driver is frequently an immigrant who, if given the chance, will tell you how he is working hard so that his children will enjoy the American dream. It is immigrants who study up on American history and civics in order to pass the citizenship test, a commitment that few born here undertake with comparable results. As Milton Friedman pointed out, however, even the rugged individualism of immigrants is threatened by the growing American welfare state and the emphasis on ethnic identity. Friedman noted that his wife, Rose, was herself an immigrant, and he was a child of immigrants, but warned that the pro-American spirit of their generation would be threatened in the future “as the melting pot has increasingly been replaced by multiculturalism, and rugged individualism by a welfare state.”
Another reason to be optimistic about the future of rugged individualism is that people keep dragging their feet against many of the government’s efforts in collectivist planning. In Los Angeles, for example, drivers have resisted the ideas of urban planners and the additions of carpool lanes and mass transit because of their individual preferences to hop in the car and drive. As former Los Angeles County Transportation Commission member Wendell Cox points out, while government planners have pressed hard for rapid transit, the user numbers have declined, costs have gone up, and traffic has increased, concluding that “drivers have not shifted to transit, despite billions in federal transit funding.”
Other examples of public resistance to collectivist ideas at the federal level include opposition to Obamacare and Common Core. Even though Obamacare was enacted in 2010, public opposition to it remains high at nearly 50 percent and lawsuits continue to be brought on account of its overreach. It is quite remarkable that this major federal initiative continues to face significant opposition six years after enactment. Common Core was well on its way to approval across the states when people began to recognize it as a significant government encroachment on local authority over school curriculum, at which time it became increasingly unpopular and efforts were undertaken in several states to repeal it. Indeed, Common Core and various social policies applied to schools have caused an increase in home schooling, which is yet another grassroots form of individualism resisting collectivism. Remarkably, home schooling has grown over 60 percent during the last decade.
It is wise for rugged individuals to appreciate what has been settled by the deliberate sense of the community over time, and what is still open for debate, discussion, and resistance. Some things are settled: Social Security will not be taken away, unless it runs out of money, for example. But Obamacare is not settled—it is still challenged in court and repealed in the House of Representatives (though not in the Senate) and unpopular in the polls. So just a vote, especially a party-line vote, doesn’t necessarily settle things. It turns out that No Child Left Behind wasn’t settled—it was challenged so often and so strongly, especially by teachers, that it was not reauthorized. Gun control, the role of God in the public square, and many other issues are not settled and are worthy of debate and resistance.
Finally, we should note continuing interest by many Americans in our nation’s founding. People still flock to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the National Archives, and Philadelphia to learn about the founders and the founding. And, quite amazingly, the hottest and most awarded musical on Broadway, Hamilton, explicitly celebrates the story of one of America’s founders, Alexander Hamilton. Born of a mixed-race mother in the West Indies, Hamilton came to America as an immigrant; the cast that celebrates his life and contributions is primarily black and Latino, encouraging all kinds of Americans to identify with the story. And despite efforts to remove Hamilton from the $20 bill, following a hue and cry, he remains. Hamilton suggests there is untapped interest in the complexities of the founding, which could be encouraged by more creative civic education.
Strengthening What Remains
A New Testament scripture, Revelation 3:2, written to a lukewarm church in Sardis, seems apt: “Wake up, strengthen what remains and is about to die.” A reawakening to the value of American rugged individualism is timely, along with efforts to strengthen its resources and increase its opportunities for influence. At the same time, it may also be important to play a little defense against those forces that seem to have rugged individualism constantly in their crosshairs and under assault. At the very least, the goal should be to maintain rugged individualism as an appropriate element of American character that should be valued and kept at the table of public life.
Certainly America needs to wake up to the value and importance of rugged individualism properly understood. The sheer passage of time from the founding and the pioneering frontier days allows Americans to fall asleep and forget some of their core values. And for some, the idea of rugged individualism is so attached to the frontier heroes that it is difficult to carry it forward to a time when, arguably, the country has evolved to become less independent and more interdependent. To some, rugged individualism sounds like an anachronism from a much earlier time. And then we must admit that rugged individualism has had real enemies who have sought to undo it and replace it. The Progressives, in particular, have fought rugged individualism on at least two grounds. Either they have sought to attach it to the Old West and open frontiers, rendering it irrelevant when the country was settled and people began to live together in cities; or they have shrunk it down to a set of selfish economic motives of the robber barons of yesterday, or the top 1 percent today, and have sought to attack it as unworthy of America.
Americans need to be reawakened to rugged individualism as more than a John Wayne cowboy of the West or a robber baron of the East. It is foremost a starting point of analysis for our unique society. America did not begin with the church or the state or the king as the center of things, but instead the individual. It is the individual who is the unit of analysis in America and everything else proceeds, as a series of choices, from that starting point. We may choose a government or church or a particular kind of society, but those choices are made by Americans as individuals. We must not fall asleep on that core dimension of rugged individualism.
We must also be reawakened to the centrality of individual liberty, or individual rights, that are at the core of rugged individualism. The Declaration of Independence declares those individual rights and the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, protects them. Such rights are not anachronisms from another time, but are active and vital today. As Herbert Hoover warned when he returned to the United States from war-torn Europe, we must never give up our unique freedoms to the various totalitarianisms that were sweeping the Continent. We must be ever alert to the danger that government stands ready to limit our individual freedoms in favor of some other good—be it government takeovers of education or health care, or diminution of our freedoms of religion or speech, or allowing individual liberty to become a mere abstraction. We must be reawakened to these cornerstones of rugged individualism in each generation. As Jefferson said, the world belongs to the living, and each generation must work out its own understanding of things. We should neither have a blind veneration for the past (Federalist No. 14) nor deprive the past of its due veneration, without which government could not maintain its stability (Federalist No. 49).
One approach would be to identify and label “liberty moments,” especially for the younger generation, times when their frustration with government should be more deeply understood as a challenge to their individual liberty. As mentioned earlier, efforts to regulate the size of soda beverages was one such moment when people recognized that the government was going too far. But the real problem was the invasion of individual liberty—after all, who should be deciding what size beverage cup people buy? Surely not the government. Another such missed opportunity came when the government declared millions of individual health insurance policies to be illegal because they did not contain all the protections government thought should be there. It turns out that many of those missing provisions had nothing to do with the health of the individual purchasing the policy—maternity care for young men, for example—but were one more super-sized government regulation to try to make the economics of federalized health care work. Once again, this was a liberty moment and, in addition to denouncing the misleading government promise that if you liked your health care you should keep it, critics should have gone deeper to identify the attack on individual liberty. These efforts could help make individual liberty less of an abstraction and more of a priority for a younger generation so accustomed to big government.
Then, in the words of the Scripture, we must strengthen and protect what remains. The Founders thought that the several checks and balances and separations of power in the Constitution were important to protect individual rights, especially against the passions of the moment and the power of government. So rugged individualism, even today, relies on that very constitutional system for protection. Calls to break down the federalism structure—whether by strengthening executive power, or turning to some kind of parliamentary system, or allowing the courts to take over our social and economic decisions—are a kind of declaration of war against individual rights. They are packaged more seductively, of course, as evolutionary steps in the development of a complex republic or as ways of breaking down barriers to government action. But now, as then, we need our federalist structure to protect American individualism. On every issue we should continue to ask a vital set of questions: Is this something the government should do? If so, which branch: executive, legislative, or judicial? And which level: federal, state or local? These are the protections our constitutional system affords to individualism and liberty.
Here’s another idea: when we ask the first question, whether an action is appropriately one for government or not, we should restore individual action as the default answer. In other words, the individual should again be the starting point of analysis, not the government. Instead, the government often falls into the trap that it must do something, even if the action it takes is not likely to solve, and sometimes doesn’t even address, the real problem. As one example, governments lined up to ban hand-held phones in cars, even though there was evidence that the real problem was not the physical distraction of holding a phone, but the driver inattention caused by talking on the phone. Government reaction to the economic crisis, despite evidence that government policy frequently worsens the economy, is a larger example. In the case of Obamacare there were policy options that would have helped the uninsured that did not inhibit the liberty of individuals to buy their own policies. The economic argument—that the funding only worked if everyone was in it together—has certainly not played out to be accurate, with a huge uninsured population despite massive investment in a misguided program. In an effort to do something, government often ends up doing the wrong thing. We must halt this notion that government is responsible for everything and must, in every case, do something.
The nation’s schools of public policy and government are also part of the difficulty. Basically their idea of teaching public policy is to identify a problem and then sort through possible government solutions, ignoring the fact that “public” policy is much broader than just government. Putting the public back into public policy would mean exploring what individuals, nonprofits, communities, businesses, and other nongovernmental entities might do, as well as government action. And even within the realm of government solutions, these schools focus primarily on national and international solutions to problems, not local approaches that may be more effective. In effect, schools of public policy are institutionalizing the mistaken approach of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and other Progressives that if only we had the right national experts or enlightened administrators able to run the federal system, things would be better, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
Improving civic education in America would also strengthen the spirit of rugged individualism. The most recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test results from spring 2015 showed that only 18 percent of eighth-grade students were “proficient” or better in history and only 23 percent in civics or government. Polls consistently show that young people cannot name one of their home state US senators, nor do they understand basic elements of the Constitution. Without an understanding of the American system—or worse, with a kind of distaste for American history from misguided high school textbooks—young Americans will be hard-pressed to champion constitutional governance or protect individual rights. With federal funding for civic education eliminated in 2011, and only resumed in 2016, and with the major emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), civic education has taken a back seat. Civic engagement has become a battle cry in education, which is fine—but it needs to be preceded by civic education. The states need to get busy requiring courses in civic education and schools of education should make sure their graduates understand enough of the content of the American system to teach it effectively. Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, called attention to the need for an “informed patriotism” in which we teach our children “what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world.” Making certain that people are able to provide informed consent as citizens is very much a part of strengthening rugged individualism.
Finally, we need to be open to new formulations and partnerships for rugged individualism. As Tocqueville pointed out, American individualism was never a purely selfish, inwardly focused kind of individualism. Americans combined their individualism with a volunteer spirit, a tendency toward forming associations, and other practical qualities. Hoover, who coined the term rugged individualism, said that in America it was always combined with equality of opportunity. President Obama, a critic of rugged individualism, nevertheless acknowledges its place in the American character, adding that it has always been “bound by a set of shared values” and by “a sense that we are in this together.” The key is that Americans begin with individualism and then consent to various associations, beginning with the family and reaching out into the larger world.
So what new associations or qualities might make rugged individualism stronger and more a part of American life without losing its essential character? For young people, especially, rugged individualism combined with a strong sense of community may seem attractive. Their experience of “networked individualism” through technology is one example of this. Their commitment to community service and civic engagement reinforces this modern combination. Even the pioneers of the West often banded together to help one another build houses and communities, so this notion of rugged individualism combined with community could increasingly become what American individualism looks like.
And what of the word “rugged”? Should it continue to be part of the formula? Dictionaries use words like toughness, determination, durability, and strength to define rugged. Are Americans still rugged today? Do we need to be? Recent books suggest that it is still an important part of American character and success. The End of Average tells author Todd Rose’s story of going from food stamps to head of a center at Harvard University and his discovery that so much in America is based on average needs, when in fact no one is average. Similarly, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance makes the case for how individual determination makes the real difference in today’s world.
It could be that the term “rugged” needs a bit of updating. Might “resourceful” be a term that carries a similar sense, with a more modern outlook? Indeed, young people today will need to be resourceful to have the kind of future that they want. In a rapidly changing world, with difficult economic and national security challenges, resourcefulness, even ruggedness, will be needed to survive and prosper. When Herbert Hoover first used the expression in 1928, he sought to contrast American rugged individualism with the soft despotism and “paternalism” of Europe, which has been closing off its frontiers with a fixed hierarchy and settled order for a few hundred years now. One would hope that there would at least be room for this understanding in the ongoing description of American character.
Can Government Change with New Frontiers?
Our book does not primarily concern the psychology or sociology of individualism, but rather how government policy affects rugged individualism. So, we close by examining the role of government vis-à-vis the new signs and frontiers of individualism. Back to our core questions about federalism (is an issue a matter for government at all and, if so, which branch and which level) we are seeing government consolidation in an era of individual and societal fragmentation. The federal government is taking over more and more matters and is consolidating its power, especially executive power, at a time when nearly everything else in society—business, social life—is returning to smaller, more individualized and localized approaches. This continuing growth of the administrative state is a special concern to rugged individualism because it removes the crucial element of consent.
One way to describe the problem is to say that the federal government is still, after eighty years, building on the paradigm of the New Deal. Federal consolidation that took place in the midst of the Great Depression is still the way government operates today. It is as though the federal government thinks it’s still the 1930s, or the Great Society of the 1960s, but it’s clearly not. The federal government taking over K-12 education and health care is the wrong direction to go. Continuing to build out a federal welfare state, as Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton propose, is a misguided effort to ramp up the federal system of an earlier time. Even expanded welfare states such as Denmark are learning that, in the worldwide economic downturn, government cannot afford to continue everything it has been doing, much less add more.
A classic example of the problem created by the old systems is the pension crisis now confronting state and local governments. In a day when government jobs did not pay as well as those in the private sector, governments offered attractive retirement pensions as an extra incentive. Now, however, many government staff positions pay as well as any job and, while the private sector has moved to defined contribution plans, government still has those attractive guaranteed pensions. Now the bill on these unrealistic policies has come due, with recent estimates showing over $1 trillion in unfunded public pension benefits. These deficits, caused by unrealistic investment and coverage policies, have already bankrupted some governments and are threatening many others. The generosity of the administrative state, living off borrowed money and not facing new realities as the private sector has done, turns out to be costly indeed.
Professor Jay Ogilvy, noting eroding confidence in large institutions, argues that “day by day, week by week, year by year we are experiencing a gradual but pervasive spread of individual autonomy and increasing confidence in personal judgment.” While acknowledging the dangers of too much individualism, Ogilvy notes the collectivism of Russia and Japan, concluding “the dangers of excessive individualism are nothing compared to the oppressiveness of excessive collectivism.” Decentralization and splintering are occurring around the world, Ogilvy argues, creating more individualism and therefore greater opportunity to address geopolitical problems in new ways. Indeed, isn’t the common good best discovered and pursued through a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, process that leads to conversation and consent?
One approach to addressing excessive federalization is proposed by Yuval Levin in his recent book The Fractured Republic. Levin argues that what is needed is neither excessive federal regulation from above, nor too much selfish individualism from below, but instead increased attention to the several community-based and localized actors in the middle such as family, work, religious communities, etc. In responding to the new frontiers of twenty-first century life, Levin rightly concludes that “political power needs to be dispersed just as other forms of power have been.” Neither the Left nor the Right has the best approach, he says, though the Right may be closer because of its basic view in favor of decentralization. The assumption is that leadership from these sectors closer to the level of the individual is more likely to be effective than continuing to grow the federal behemoth in Washington.
Columnist and think tank member Jonah Goldberg would look for new institutions in the political arena. He reminds us of the American Liberty League of the 1930s, “a legitimate grass-roots educational and political organization with more than 100,000 members.” In a situation not unlike 2016, the League was “a platform for constitutionalists and classical liberals who felt estranged from political parties.” In a time when candidates such as Trump and Sanders embrace nationalism and socialism respectively, perhaps it is timely for a political movement that is more centrist and that believes in ideas, not just winning.
We live in a time of economic, business, and social transformation in which Americans are more concerned about security than usual. Some of the anger and frustration are about globalization and technology reducing lower-paying jobs. The appropriate role for government in such a situation is greater emphasis on education and retraining for new higher paying jobs, including tax policies better targeted at this. But along with security, people are also interested in the American dream. Candidates like Bernie Sanders don’t want the American dream, they want to transform it to the Danish dream. Too much emphasis on safety and security actually threatens the American dream. The core message of the Left—we’ll give you food stamps so you won’t starve, health care so you don’t suffer from a disease, and social security and welfare so you have money—is so much about security and protecting the downsides of life that it leaves little room for the upsides, which are available through individual liberty.
To keep the American dream vital and alive, we will need rugged and resourceful American individualism. We cannot continue to build a stifling federal government and an overwhelming national debt and leave room for rugged individualism. We cannot tip the delicate balance between equality and liberty so heavily in favor of equality that there is no liberty left for individual Americans to enjoy and employ. The new frontiers of the twenty-first century call us to rekindle the rugged individualism of America’s founding, frontiers, and Constitution. It deserves a continuing, vibrant role in American politics and life.